Can you be a good novelist AND a good short story writer?

dr evil and mini me

I’m sure somebody brilliant can, but what about the average, competent wordsmith?

Though I’m a business writer by profession, I consider myself a novelist for no good reason other than the novel is my preferred vehicle for storytelling. 80,000 words feels about right for saying what I want to say. Still, I’ve dabbled in short fiction, usually ending up with unwieldy pieces that are too long for literary rags but too short for standalone publication.

Over the past several months, I’ve been intermittently digging old stories from the vaults (otherwise known as my hard drive) and rereading them. Most were written 5-6 years ago, with periodic revision since.

My first conclusion: I’m not sure I understand the short story as an art form. What makes a short story “good”? How much stuff needs to happen for it to qualify as a story and not a vignette? What does a character arc look like when you only have 4000 words to play with? Why can’t anyone in the Galactic Republic program R2D2 to speak English? It can’t require more than a few megabytes of memory.

I’ve tossed some of these stories in the direction of different beta readers to get some general opinions, which have ranged from “I was hooked from the first word” to “Burn it.” Which shows the limitations of getting feedback from a statistically insignificant number of readers, but that’s a different post. What I discovered is that people don’t like when you experiment with different voices and writing styles. I thought freedom was the cool part about writing short fiction, but that may not translate into enjoyment for the reader.

My second conclusion: I am not engaging in further revisions or seeking publication for any of these stories. Aside from a few flash pieces, I have only written one short story in the past 3 years, and, in comparing it to the earlier ones, it blows them away. Perhaps I’ve improved too much to feel these old stories represent me as a writer anymore. I hope that’s the case.

The point of all this is I am going to serialize at least one of the stories here, and maybe more. Some of you may remember I already did that with one of my old pieces, The Last Stop (which I’ve just pasted in its entirety under the “Fiction” tab above, if you want to check it out).  In terms of blog traffic, I was quite pleasantly surprised at the response to my serialization.

So, starting tomorrow, I’ll begin serializing another of my malformed progeny, On the Way to My Grave, featuring yet another unlikable protagonist! I must have been going through a phase.

With Thanksgiving next week, I will post fewer, slightly longer segments—compared to last time—to get it done before the holiday. You are welcome to critique, destroy, hate on, or respond as you otherwise please in the comments. I shan’t be revising the tale further.

29 responses to “Can you be a good novelist AND a good short story writer?

  • Jill Weatherholt

    It’s funny, I’ve always focused on novel writing, but lately, I’ve been gravitating more towards short stories and novellas.
    I’ll look forward to reading, On the Way to My Grave…I hope this doesn’t relate to your diet. 🙂

  • Sue Archer

    Looking forward to seeing what you have unearthed. I think writing short fiction is challenging. Maybe us business writers write too many long rambling proposals in our day jobs… 😉

    • ericjbaker

      If nothing else, we know how to write with deadlines, don’t we?

      A lot of my professional writing is of the “script-doctor” variety, which has improved my fiction tremendously. That is, I’ve developed a better sense of what should go and what should stay in my own work by performing radical surgery on that of others. That may be the chief reason I’m serializing my old stories here instead of trying to publish them: They lack storytelling precision (though I hope still provide some enjoyment to readers).

      Gee, I’m great at selling my serialization, aren’t I? 😉

  • DamioNIN

    Honestly I don’t even like the idea of labeling oneself. There are plenty of writers who can dabble in both and be successful in both. It’s all about how the story wants to be told and not how we, as writers, want to tell the story.

    • ericjbaker

      Good point. I’ve argued against labels and categories in other aspects of life, so why am I trying to put myself in a box? My only justification for doing so at the moment is my uncertainty about the principles of short-story writing. I just realized this in the past week.

  • uju

    Keeping my eyes glued to this page 🙂

  • TonyT

    I would say so. Cutting every word and making every scene and sentence count are as important over 80,000 words as 800; I believe it’s a skill well worth mastering.

    • ericjbaker

      I’ll probably dig back into short-story writing at some point, but I need to explore the theoretical side first. Most of my stories read like compressed novels. They certainly weren’t wasted time, though, as I can at least use them as benchmarks of progress.

      Thanks so much for the comment!

  • Gwen Stephens

    I don’t know if I have what it takes for shorts and flash either. I do enjoy dreaming up stories when I know I have the luxury of 75k words to tell it. Looking forward to the Short segments, Eric.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks. I’ve had a bit of luck publishing flash pieces, but I view those more as vignettes than stories. Overall, a novel gives me a chance to get to know my own characters as a tell their story, which I find more difficult in a shorter piece.

  • Arkenaten

    Although I prefer novels, I dont mind having a crack atwriting either, and have done, But as a rule I dont enjoy reading short stories for some reason, and have always shied away from such, including ”compilations” in favour of a full length novel.

  • jhmae

    I think I read once that what makes a short story a short story is that it depicts only a snapshot in the MC’s life, a very brief, defining moment. As for character arc, I think that in order for a short story to take place and make sense, a lot of that back story/build up that novels require in the first 1/4 has already happened. The character is already at that critical moment. But, of course, it can’t be too big – that’s what novels are for. But that’s just my opinion. I’ve written/published mostly short fiction and I’m only just starting to delve in novels with NaNo. And I’ve written stuff in between – 20,000 words. I think it’s good for a writer to flex his muscles with both – if he’s inclined to do so. Short stories allow you to spend time with lots of different ideas, characters and voices, to develop stories that are only small enough for a short piece and not expansive enough for a novel. I love the short format, personally. I love all formats actually.

    But if you’re comfy only with the long-form, I say stick with that. Do what you like, because if you do what you like, you’ll write more naturally, and the story will be better.

    • ericjbaker

      Great insights, first of all. Thank you. Second, I’ve been very interested in and learned a lot from our beta reading exchanges. Maybe there’s a reason 10K to 29K is a dead zone for fiction. We both had similar criticisms for each other’s long stories: There’s either too much here or not enough. To make those stories work properly, they would need to be scaled back or expanded upon. I think our respective main characters didn’t have sufficient identity because we tried to squeeze all that story in at the expense of the little details that reveal a person’s motivations.

      Meanwhile, in your story about the actor going on the audition, the writing come across as very sure-handed. I’m sorry I forgot the characters’ names, but I felt like I knew so much more about the actor in 3000 words than I did about the widow in 20000 words. I think the actor story was a great example of a short piece that works: the right amount of characterization and dramatic tension, but it wasn’t hinged on a notably structured plot. I think I get hung up on plot when I dabble in short fiction, as if it were a movie script.

      • jhmae

        I don’t agree that 10k to 29k is a fiction dead zone. I know I was guilty of a cardinal sin, which is why my story didn’t work. I didn’t consider how many words I really needed to tell my story. I think just like you have to really think about POV before you sit down to write, you also have to think about how long the story needs to be. Some story ideas aren’t expansive or interesting enough to fill 20k words (my problem, I think) and others couldn’t possibly be told in less than 10k. A bit of pre-planning is the best way to figure that out, in my experience.

  • livelytwist

    Short stories are my favourite form. I thoroughly enjoyed the one you serialized and I’m looking forward to the next series- and that’s saying something because apart from Uzoma’s series, I don’t read serialized stories on blogs. I lose interest.

    I should say something intellectual about the short story as an art form, about how I think it’s relevance will rise in this Twitter Generation, about the elements that make it work … ah, but I’m smiling at the photo. The ‘short story’ thinks he’s cool! That’s why I write short stories. 😀

    • ericjbaker

      Please! Say something intellectual about short fiction. I’m eager to learn from my peers.

      It is hard to keep up with serialized blog posts, especially if you are away from wordPress for a few days like I am sometimes. Thanks for reading my last story and I hope this one holds your interest.

  • Dave

    I don’t know, Eric. I seem to think I can, but then again I don’t know if I qualify as an average, competent wordsmith. For me, it all comes down to the idea that comes to mind. Almost always, a story will pop into my mind and whether it is to be a short story or novel(la) is a foregone conclusion. They just kind of happen that way. Yeah, I know. Weird. I enjoy writing both. I have yet to decide whether I’m better at one or the other, or equally bad. Time will tell.

    Looking forward to this story you’ll be posting. Love the title 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      Hahaha. Don’t pick on yourself too much, Dave. You got a story published very recently.

      My current novel started as a short story, as did the one I wrote in 2010. Thus, I’m not sure I know what a short story is!

  • 1WriteWay

    I never thought of myself as writing novels until I wrote my first one for NaNoWriMo in 2007. Since then I’ve written a few more, but I wouldn’t say I’m a novelist. I’ve written poetry, but I wouldn’t say I’m a poet. I’ve written short stories, my preferred form, and even then I just said I was a writer. You don’t have to pick one or the other. Ideally, we grow as writers and one way to grow is to try different things, different forms, different POVs. Even if you eventually decide that all you will ever write are novels, at least you’ll know how you got there. Now, I’m hoping to finish this year’s NaNoWriMo by Thanksgiving so I can take a break and read instead of write. And the first thing I’m going to read is your short story 🙂

  • Richard Leonard

    I once read the winning entry of a short story contest I entered. I had to read it because I didn’t write it and I wanted to see what a winner was like. It didn’t stike me as outstanding until I read the judges comments on why it won. Apparently it was concise, tight said everything that needed to be said and they “couldn’t find a word that could be deleted without changing the meaning”. Or something like that.
    I re-read it and agreed. But it still wasn’t outstanding. But then, neither was mine.
    I find it hard to keep under the word limit but I guess that’s the challenge. A short story has to do more in a shorter space/time and that might be harder to acheive for a lot of novelists.

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